2023 WORLD AQUATICS CHAMPIONSHIPS
- July 23 to 30, 2023
- Fukuoka, Japan
- Marine Messe Fukuoka
- LCM (50m)
- Meet Central
BY THE NUMBERS — WOMEN’S 4×100 FREE RELAY
- World Record: Australia — 3:29.69 (2021)
- Championship Record: Australia — 3:30.21 (2019)
- 2022 World Champion: Australia — 3:30.95
The last time the Australians lost the 4×100 freestyle relay was in 2017, when a Simone Manuel-led American team took gold ahead of a weakened Aussie squad that didn’t have Cate Campbell, their 51-low-splitting relay superstar. Team USA broke the American record in that race, which still stands today.
However, for five years after their last loss, Australia dominated the 4×100 free relay like no other and hasn’t lost since. They often won this relay by multiple body lengths——in fact, their smallest margin of victory in the event at a senior international meet since 2017 was 0.81 seconds.
And while the Aussies haven’t had any challengers in a long time, the Americans might have something to say about that this year. After their showing at the 2023 U.S. National Championships, they proved for the first time since 2017 that they had a shot at taking down the giants. Unlike in years past when Australia could win comfortably, they have zero room for errors this time around.
Aussies vs. Americans
Let’s start off by saying that even with a stronger American team, the Australians are still big favorites this year. They outrank the Americans in overall depth, add-up times, and experience, and absolutely have what it takes to win.
Australia’s top four performers of Mollie O’Callaghan (52.48), Emma McKeon (52.52), Shayna Jack (52.60), and Meg Harris (53.09) have an add-up time of 3:30.69, which is faster than the 2022 World Championships winning time of 3:30.95. And this doesn’t even account for the fact that Harris has split as fast as 52.59, O’Callaghan has split as fast as 52.03, and McKeon has split as fast as 51.35. And in the event that any of these top four swimmers are off their game, they can always rely on Madi Wilson in reserve, as Wilson has a season-best of 53.42 and split 52.25 last year.
In fact, if you add up Australia’s fastest relay splits from 2022 and beyond, you get a time that’s faster than the world record of 3:29.69.
Australia’s Top Relay Performers Since 2022:
|Mollie O’Callaghan||52.48 (flat start)|
However, it’s unrealistic to just add up a team’s best possible splits and expect them to replicate them in a real-time race scenario. The reality is that misfires happen (for example, Harris was slower than her flat start best time off a rolling split at Worlds last year), but Australia was so dominant over the rest of the world that they would win regardless of their mistakes. But that doesn’t always work out—the Aussies were the favorites on paper to win the 4×200 free relay at the 2021 Olympics and 2022 World Championships, but several swimmers going significantly slower than what they are capable of going soiled their chances of gold.
If Australia makes the same mistakes that they make in the 4×200 in the 4×100 this year, they could be prone to an upset. And now, let’s talk about their biggest challengers: the Americans.
At the 2023 U.S. National Championships, Kate Douglass, Abbey Weitzeil, and Gretchen Walsh amongst others had big swims. Douglass swam a time of 52.57 to become the second-fastest American ever (and the fastest American woman in four years), while Weitzeil set a best time of 52.92. Walsh’s 53.11 indicates that she’s capable of splitting under 53 (as she’s proved in the NCAA, she’s a great relay performer), and if Torri Huske‘s 52.92 from last year is factored in, the Americans could have a relay with all 52 splits—something that they have never had before. And don’t forget about Olivia Smoliga (53.28) and Maxine Parker (53.51), who also have the potential to throw down a strong relay split.
If the flat start personal bests of the fastest Americans are added up, the result is a time just half a second off the American record. But when 0.5 seconds get subtracted from Douglass, Weitzeil, and Walsh’s times to account for relay starts, the add-up time would be significantly faster than the American record, and 0.85 seconds off of Australia’s add-up time.
United States, Flat Start Add-Up:
United States, Hypothetical “Fastest Possible Relay” (-0.5 for Douglass, Weitzeil, and Walsh):
So the conclusion that can be drawn here is that the gap between a “best case scenario” Australian and American team is small enough for this relay to be an actual race, even if the Australians still have the upper hand. However, there are still a few more subjective variables that need to be discussed.
The first variable is the status of O’Callaghan, who injured her knee a month prior to Worlds. Swimming Australia said she was expected to be okay for Worlds, but in the event that she is off her best, the gap between America and Australia will close a little bit more. On the contrary, though, McKeon has the potential to be a lot faster than 51.88, which is the second variable. She wasn’t in her top long course form last year but produced the fastest short course splits ever last December in the 100 free and 100 fly—if she can carry that momentum into the long course season and get near her 51.35 split from Tokyo, it would be a huge boost to the Aussies. The third variable is the status of Kate Douglass, who will be swimming the semifinals of the 200 IM before this relay, with only the men’s 400 IM separating the two events. Because of the double she will take on, she might not be a full half a second faster than her flat start best time.
Because the wear-and-tear of a double session seems more certain than O’Callaghan’s performance severely declining, the chances of the United States being negatively affected by the variables above is higher than Australia. In addition, Australia just has more depth and speed (and has proved so many times in the past), so we are picking them to win. However, expect a close and exciting race unlike what’s been displayed in the last few years.
Battle For Third
In years past, the Canadian women have been a surefire medal contender in this relay, even beating out the United States for silver in 2021 and 2022. However, with Kayla Sanchez opting to represent the Phillippines and 100 freestyle Canadian record holder Penny Oleksiak being out of Worlds, the Canadians are a much weaker team than they were last year. Taylor Ruck also broke her hand in April, and though she will be competing at Worlds this year, it is unclear how much the injury will affect her performance.
With several stars out or not being at their best, team Canada is going to have to rely on two swimmers that don’t even specialize in the 100 free: Summer McIntosh and Maggie MacNeil. MacNeil swam on Canada’s silver-medal-winning relay at the 2021 Olympics and 2022 Worlds, and produced a 53-low split on both relays. Meanwhile, McIntosh will likely be swimming her first 4×100 free relay at Worlds or Olympics, though she did split 53.33 anchoring Canada’s medley relay at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. If Ruck is at least somewhat on form, she should take the third spot, while Mary-Sophie Harvey, Brooklyn Douthwright, or Katerine Savard could be good options on the fourth leg. While Savard has the most relay experience and split 54.05 at Worlds last year, Douthright and Harvey tied to beat her and finish second at trials this year in a time of 55.15, while Savard placed sixth with a 55.22.
Canada’s Top Relay Performers Since 2022:
The “best case scenario” Canadian relay is already over two seconds off what it took to get bronze at Worlds last year, and only 0.61 seconds faster than China’s fourth-place time. Obviously, a swimmer like McIntosh could improve from her best split, but with Ruck’s status in question and Savard off-form, it seems unlikely that Canada will medal over a Chinese team with much more untapped potential.
Note: We added up the top relay splits for every country since 2022 with the exception of China. We added up China’s best splits from 2021 because the belief that they are favorites to get bronze is largely rooted in their 2021 performance.
So let’s talk about that Chinese team. They finished fourth at Worlds last year, but it’s important to note that the majority of China’s squad was off last year—they had been hampered by COVID-19 restrictions that were stronger than those in most other countries. That being said, they do have the potential for at least three 52-point splits, with Zhang Yufei‘s flat start personal best being 52.90, Yang Junxuan splitting 52.79 at Worlds last year, and Wu Qingfeng splitting 52.90 at the Olympics. Cheng Yujie won the 100 free at Chinese Nationals in a time of 53.26, which makes for a possible fourth 52 split.
China’s results at Nationals were also significantly better than Canada’s with Cheng, Yang (53.87), Zhang (53.95), and Wu (54.03) posting times faster than Canada’s winning time. With their potential and in-season speed, they should be considerable favorites for bronze. However, Chinese swimmers tend to perform very well at their own Nationals and are sometimes inconsistent at international competitions, so there is a chance that they could add significant time. That being said, they do look like they are better shape than they were in last year, as Nationals ran uninterrupted without pandemic problems.
The top four swimmers from Chinese Nationals combine for a time that is just 0.47 seconds slower than Canada’s hypothetical “best case scenario” relay. Meanwhile, a Chinese relay that lives up to its full potential adds up to a time that would have taken silver at Worlds last year. The reality is that they will likely throw down a time in between their flat start add-up and their own “best case scenario” time, which still puts them in a more favorable position than Canada.
China’s Top Four Performers At Nationals (Flat Start Only):
China’s Fastest Performers Since 2021:
Another team that we believe has a shot at the podium is Great Britain, who finished fifth last year. The same four swimmers on Britain’s Worlds relay last year took top four at trials this year, with Freya Anderson (53.48) leading the charge and Anna Hopkin (53.52), Lucy Hope (54.34), and Abbie Wood (55.01) following. Medi Harris is also an option—she finished fifth at trials, but out-split Wood last year.
If Great Britain’s fastest performers from 2022 were added up, they’d have a relay that’s on par with Canada’s. However, this doesn’t account for the fact that Anna Hopkin went a 52.75 flat start in Tokyo and also split 52.00 anchoring a relay. She was nowhere near that form in her 2022 long course meets, but had a strong short course Worlds showing to cap off her year (where she medalled in the 50 free and went a 51.81 100 free). If short course Worlds is an indication that she’ll be close to Tokyo form, then it would increase Britain’s chance of medalling.
Great Britain’s Fastest Performers Since 2022:
The Frenchwomen actually had a similar showing compared to Great Britain did at Nationals, with Marie Wattel (53.81), Beryl Gastadello (53.92), Mary Ambre-Moluh (54.48), and Lison Nowacyzk (54.91) taking top four. With Wattel and Gastadello are veterans, they will be leading a very inexperienced team, as Ambre-Moluh and Nowacyzk are both teenagers. It is unclear whether or not Charlotte Bonnett will be on this relay—she’s the French record holder in the 100 free and was on France’s 4×100 free relay at European Championships last year, but has seemingly shifted her focus towards breaststroke and IM and did not race the 100 free at Nationals.
France did not race this relay at Worlds last year but is entered in it this year. Their “best case scenario” relay add-up time is just 0.01 of a second faster than Great Britain’s.
France’s Fastest Performers Since 2022:
Right now, we have China slated to get bronze. However, if they implode at Worlds and are off their bests by a significant margin, it looks like the fight for third will be between Great Britain, France and Canada.
Best Of The Rest
The Dutch were once a force to be reckoned with in the 4×100 free relay, but now that Ranomi Kromowidjojo and Femke Heemskerk are gone, Marrit Steenbergen is what keeps their boat floating. Steenbergen holds a flat start best time of 52.92 and has split as fast as 52.33 on a relay before, but she doesn’t have any teammates that are closer to her level. Most likely, some combination of Milou Wijk (54.77 flat start), Valerie Van Roon (54.76 relay split), Kim Busch (55.01 relay split), Janna Van Kooten (55.19), and Imani De Jong (55.32) will be joining her, and they should be a sure bet to place top 8.
Another country that will be lifted up by a young star is Brazil, which finished sixth last year. 18-year-old Stephanie Balduccini holds a best time of 54.10 and is likely capable of a 53-mid split, while Ana Carolina Viera went 54.64 at Brazilian Nationals and also qualified for the relay. 18-year-old Celine Bishop (55.49 PB) and Giovanna Diamante (55.40 PB, 53.98 relay split) are also qualified to swim the 4×100 free relay in Fukuoka.
Hungary, last year’s eighth-place finishers, boasts a very young team. 17-year-olds Nikoletta Padar and Dora Molnar have all split as fast as 54.01 before, while Petra Senanskzy won Hungarian Nationals in a time of 54.43. The only swimmer that will need to be replaced is Fanni Gyrurinovics, who split 54.15 on last year’s relay but is not on this year’s Hungarian Worlds roster. In place of her will likely be another 17-year-old, Lillia Abraham. Abraham holds a best time of 55.53 and swam prelims of Hungary’s 4×100 free relay at European Champs last year.
Sweden, which didn’t enter in this relay last year, has a fate dependent on the status of 100 free world record holder Sarah Sjostrom, who opted to focus on the 50s individually at Worlds. She swam the 100 free on Swedish relays at Euros last year despite not doing the event individually, which means a similar move isn’t out of the question in Fukuoka. If she decides to swim this relay alongside Louise Hansson (53.72 split in 2022), Sofia Astedt (54.84 split in 2022), and Sara Junevik (55.12 split in 2022), the Swedes should make the final comfortably.
SwimSwam’s Top 8 Picks:
|Place||Country||2022 Worlds Finish|